2024 shaping up to be a big year for healthcare AI companies. But some investors remain cautious

AI deal activity is dominating healthcare investment with 1 in 4 dollars invested in healthcare going toward companies leveraging AI, according to a new report.

Venture capital deal activity in AI in healthcare has surged the past five years, with the rate of deals growing twice as fast as the tech industry overall, Silicon Valley Bank, a division of First Citizens Bank, reports.

Since 2022, seed and series A pre-money valuations for healthcare companies leveraging AI have outpaced those not utilizing it, according to SVB's report based on its own proprietary data and analysis and PitchBook data.

The report found that $7.2 billion of U.S. VC dollars were invested in AI healthcare companies last year, representing 21% of total VC healthcare investment. So far, in 2024, $2.8 billion has already been invested in AI healthcare companies, with SVB projecting the sector to see $11.1 billion in VC capital deployed this year, the highest it has been since 2021.

The report takes an in-depth look at current fundraising activity and challenges, macro trends and emerging technologies in healthcare. 

"It's no surprise that AI is dominating the discourse right now. But, one of the more surprising takeaways is how fast it's growing in healthcare. As compared to tech, it's growing two times as fast, not in terms of dollars or deal volume, but deal pace," Raysa Bousleiman, vice president, venture capital relationship management, life science and healthcare at SVB, said in an interview. 

"Tech has been ahead, unsurprisingly, in terms of AI investment and adoption. But now that we've seen some very early players start to play out, we're really seeing some of this pickup. I think people are really starting to warm up to the idea and realizing that it's here and it's going to be adopted soon," Bousleiman said, noting that healthcare providers recognize integrating AI into their operations can give them an advantage.

While AI in drug discovery and therapeutics garners outsized attention, most of the investment is going toward other applications, with administrative use cases viewed as the low-hanging fruit.

Since 2021, startups in the administrative AI space—this includes companies focusing on using AI for virtual assistants, clinical note-taking and revenue cycle operations—account for 60% of total AI investment in healthcare, SVB found.

So far in 2024, administrative AI accounts for 27% of AI healthcare investment and 42% of deal volume.

Abridge, a startup that uses AI to increase the speed and accuracy of medical note-taking, has raised $212.5 million to date, including a hefty $150 million series C funding round in February. Rad AI developed an AI platform for radiology and pocketed $50 million in fresh capital in May. The startup has raised more than $80 million to date.

On the clinical AI front, Tempus AI, which provides data and analytics tools and AI for precision medicine, has secured $1.3 billion in funding over nine funding rounds.

At least 30 U.S. healthcare AI companies have achieved unicorn status since 2019, according to SVB's data.

Administrative AI faces fewer regulatory hurdles than clinical AI—an attractive prospect for investors.

For providers and payers, it’s still early days for their AI strategies. Many are targeting administrative AI first since it carries less risk and leads to clear efficiency gains, Bousleiman notes in the report.

Healthcare AI companies focused on patient diagnostics account for 52% of the total AI investment in clinical solutions. Diagnostic imaging has seen impressive growth, with trailing 12-month investment doubling since the first quarter of 2021, the report found. Oncology-focused companies also are scoring major investment deals, including Freenome's $254 million funding round and Harbinger Health's $140 million series B.

According to Rock Health's first-quarter funding report, AI-based digital health startups brought in 40% of the first quarter's funding total, or $1.1 billion across 45 deals, rising from 33% of 2023 digital health funding and 29% of 2022’s funding pot.

"[AI] is attracting a lot of investor attention. It's been a bright spot not only for investment but also for fundraising as well," Bousleiman noted. "Many funds, especially ones that haven't been around as long, are struggling to raise their next fund and are not hitting the targets or are taking longer, especially on the emerging manager front and smaller funds are definitely more challenged. But funds that are closing, a lot of them are focused on AI."

She added, "One in four funds that were closed last year had AI in their strategy."

In 2023, 68 funds closed with a focus on healthcare and AI, raising $9.7 billion, according to the report. So far this year, 22 funds have closed, raising $5.6 billion.

While SVB estimates fewer funds focused on healthcare and AI will close than in previous years (66 in 2024, down from 101 in 2022), it also projects that total funds raised in 2024 will tower over 2023 ($16.9 billion compared to $9.7 billion).

Some investors take cautious, studied approach

The hype over generative AI in healthcare has reached a fever pitch. However, many VC investors say inflated valuations back in 2021 left them with a sour taste.

During a recent panel discussion at a conference in Washington, D.C., thINc360 - The Healthcare Innovation Congress, Doba Parushev, managing partner and vice president of venture capital at Healthworx Ventures, said the investment firm has yet to place a bet on generative AI. Healthworx is the investment and innovation arm of CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

"We have battle scars. Keep in mind that between 2020 and 2023, we saw a massive explosion of healthcare investment as VCs," Parushev said. For many investors, the high valuations and massive investment in healthcare AI companies mirror the wild ride in digital health investment in 2021. At that time, the fundamentals of building a sustainable business became a lower priority in a "growth at all costs" mentality, many investors say.

"The fundamental question of what problem are you solving and what's your approach to it took a backseat," Parushev said. "[For generative AI], it's early, things are moving very fast and it's hard to tell what's actually real. I am very happy to talk about AI with each and every one of our potential investments in the second half of the conversation. But, in the first half of the conversation, what I want to know is, what's the problem you're solving, what do you think is special about it and how are you going to go tackle it?"

"It does remind me a little bit of 2021 valuations," said Tara Bishop, M.D., co-founder and managing director at early-stage VC fund Black Opal Ventures, while speaking on the same conference panel. "There have been some incredibly high valuations and massive rounds that have happened in the ambient note-taking space and the general generative AI healthcare space that just sort of blew my mind as an investor,"

"We are also a little hesitant and really concerned about overpaying for something. I think there are some important challenges and some important opportunities," she noted. Black Opal Ventures backs conversational AI company Hyro, which provides its AI-powered assistants to healthcare organizations like Intermountain Health, Weill Cornell Medicine and Baptist Health Jacksonville. 

Growing interest among healthcare providers and payers to use AI in their operations opens the door for startups to gain traction in healthcare, an industry that is historically difficult to sell into, she noted. But, there is the risk of commoditization.

"Is everyone at a health system or at a payer going to start to code their own ChatGPT? I think that is a risk for companies that are fully AI forward in developing this technology," Bishop said.

Sean Cheng, Ph.D., managing director of Ascension Ventures, said generative AI technology is evolving so rapidly that it's difficult to make investment decisions for gen AI-powered applications.

"Where we have laid our bets is at the 'picks and shovels' layer, which is supplying the tools and the pipes and wiring that can get the data to the foundation models or the apps. We think that's going to stay around," he noted during the thINc360 conference. Ascension Ventures has invested in a startup called Striim, a growth-stage data infrastructure company.

"That's where we think there's a steady rock amid the tumultuous winds," Cheng said.

A survey conducted by GSR Ventures back in November found that most investors are taking a "middle ground" on generative AI.

Seventy-one percent of investors believe ChatGPT/gen AI is changing their investment strategy “somewhat” or “a little”, with 12% saying it does “not at all.” Only 17% of investors are willing to say ChatGPT/gen AI changes their investment strategy “significantly," according to the survey of 40 healthcare technology VCs.